Stories of Cama-i 2016

by Adrian Wagner on April 4, 2016

20160401_Toksook Bay Camai 2016_Photo by Dean Swope_004This weekend marked the passage of the 2016 Cama-i Tradition Dance Festival in Bethel. The over thirty-year-old celebration took place in the Bethel Regional High School, KYUK listened to a few of the stories behind some of the weekends performances.

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Camam-I, the name of one of western Alaska’s most famous dance festivals held in Bethel this weekend, means “hello” in Yup’ik.

Hello to spring, longer days, warmer weather, and new faces in town that came from far and wide to watch three eclectic nights of dancing, singing and drumming.


Unlike many traditional festivals, Cama-i is not a reenactment, but a celebration of something that is still very much alive.


Bethel Traditional Dancers

20160401_Bethel Traditional Dancers Camai 2016_Photo by Dean Swope_003

“I grew up hearing these songs and I danced to them myself,” said David Bill, drummer for the Bethel Traditional Dancers, and Napakiak Dancers, the first group to preform on Friday night.

Bill also says, “You learn it from your own experiences and you become apart of it”

According to Bill, who plays a large flat drum, the act of preforming these pieces is something personal that reaches deep into his life.



Toksook Bay

20160401_Toksook Bay Camai 2016_Photo by Dean Swope_006

Martina John, from Toksook Bay, also had a personal relationship to the music she danced to this weekend. This years Cama-i was dedicated to John’s late husband Paul John. Martina John’s daughter Teresa John translates.

“There was no dancing, but in 1956 is when the dancings were revitalized in the community. She say’s she was very happy to see that happen.”

Traditional Western Alaskan dances were outlawed for decades by various groups of colonists, settlers and missionaries, and were only legalized after Alaska gained statehood in 1951, and not until much later in some areas.

John says that her late husband was active in their village helping to bring back the once nearly lost dances.


Broken Walls

Broken Walls, a native group from Ontario, Canada, which mixes contemporary Christian music, 90’s rock, and traditional Mohawk drumming, sang about the dangers of substance abuse in native communities.

“Family dysfunction, alcoholism, suicide, they’re all basic things that come fundamentally from a people displaced from who they were created to be.”

That’s the group’s, guitarist, singer and songwriter, Jonathan Miracle, who says he sees these issues in many native areas both in the US and Canada, and is speeding awareness through his music.

Shasta Taiko

20160401_Shasta Taiko Drummers Camai 2016_Photo by Dean Swope_009

Jeanie Mercer, born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, uses the musical form Tiko, a kind of Japanese drumming, to make a connection between her Heritage and her home, the United States, by repurposing an ancient sounds to fit original songs.

“As Japanese-Americans we didn’t get to experience Japanese culture because of World War II.”

Mercer says that she learned Tiko from a group that first brought the form to US during the civil rights moment in the late 60’s and introduced it to her son, and band member. Now both generations play together Mercers band Shasta Taiko.

Like Shasta Taiko, almost every group this weekend was a mix of elders and their next of kin. An example of the traditional and the living tradition carried on in the next generation.

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